It’s going to be pretty weird for Minnesota Vikings fans to look at the right defensive end position and not see Everson Griffen.
The 10-year veteran, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, announced Friday that he would not be coming back to Minnesota after opting out of his contract to become a free agent.
Now the Vikings are tasked with filling the shoes of a dominant edge rusher who amassed the fourth most sacks in team history.
How difficult will he be to replace?
At 32 years old, Griffen was still one of the top players at his position. Pro Football Focus graded him 21st of 63 edge rushers who played at least 50% of snaps in 2019. He created the 14th most pressures (66) and tied for ninth in most QB hits (nine). The Vikings’ Pro Bowler also stayed healthy, playing the 17th most snaps among edge rushers.
It isn’t easy to replace an every-down defensive end who can create consistent pressure. It is even tougher to replace one who draws as much attention as Griffen. Opponents find it impossible to gameplan for both Griffen and left defensive end Danielle Hunter. They routinely chip him with running backs and double team him with tight end help, yet find him in the backfield over and over again. Per PFF data, opponents only double teamed Hunter on 20% of snaps when both players were on the field.
There’s also an intangible element to Griffen’s presence that can’t be filled by next-man-up. He was the driving force behind the defense and the man at the center of the pre-game huddle getting his teammates ready for gametime. He worked with other players to improve their game and set an example for every newcomer to follow. That has value.
All that said, his rushing production isn’t impossible to replace.
The Vikings have been drafting players and developing for this scenario for several years. Ifeadi Odenigbo had seven sacks and 26 pressures on 299 pass rush snaps last season. Add him to the mix with a free agent and the Vikings should be able to patchwork the right side while relying on Hunter to continue his superstar trajectory.
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There are still a number of impact rushers on the market. Former New York Giant Markus Golden had just 12 sacks and just two fewer pressures than Griffen last season with 64 on 509 pass rush snaps. The interest in his services might be less than expected so the Vikings could aim to sign him on a Sheldon Richardson-like one-year prove-it deal.
Other rotational rushers like Jabaal Sheard (42 pressures, five sacks on 378 snaps), Adrian Clayborn (48 pressures on 322 snaps) and Vinny Curry (44 pressures on 275 snaps) have had a good deal of success as role players.
In that case, a short-term deal could be paired with drafting a defensive end with one of the team’s five picks out of the first 105 overall selections.
It says something about Griffen that it might take three players to fill the shoes of one. And that’s the tough part for the Vikings with this offseason. Few players have meant as much to the organization as Griffen over the last decade but the Vikings have put themselves in a position with the salary cap in which it carries a high degree of risk to spend big on an older player. If there is an older player who would have been worth it, however, it was Griffen.
*portions of this article ran following Griffen’s decision to opt out of his contract